Refugee moms: Together strong!

In recent years, people have left their homeland for very different reasons – including many mothers and children. The project EngagemenTräume in Kempten offers refugee mothers language lessons, among other things, to help them manage everyday life. Through this, they can more quickly become a part of their children's school environment. On the side, they create their own network.

Marta Popowska
Verena Müller
July 25, 2023

Anna Tsiukalenko asks the group, "Where would you rather live, in a big city or a small town?" The young German teacher's eyes wander from one woman to the next. After a moment, one of then speaks up: "In a small town, because I like peace and nature. It's also better for the children, I think." Many agree with her. "Other people like big cities because they want to work and have a career," counters Nadiia Chursina. The Ukrainian hails from Zaporizhzhya, a city of just under 800,000 that has been heavily bombarded during Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Ten women are in the craft room at the elementary school in Kempten an der Sutt this Wednesday morning. White walls, white wooden panels. Paper flowers in purple, green and orange hang from the windows. The tables are a little too low for the women, but the equally low chairs compensate somewhat. Those who usually sit here are no older than ten. It's cozy, harmonious – and safe. Something these women need because they have all had experiences as refugees. 

Nadiia Chusina welcome a mother with baby
Few post-its on a table
Left: Mothers are allowed to bring their children to the classes. Right: German lessons are based on everyday situations.

They come from Iran, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine. Once a week, they meet at the elementary school for the language café of the EngagemenTräume project, a cooperation between the school and the Kempten Muslim Women's Social Services, or SmF for short.  The local association’s target group includes a significant proportion of people who have fled their homeland. The offers for meeting are low-threshold and range from excursions to mother-child groups, fathers' groups, climbing and yoga to philosophical discussion groups. EngagemenTräume is aimed specifically at mothers. The SmF employees offer assistance, help with homework or visit the public library together.

About the project

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EngagemenTräume is a joint project of the Kempten Elementary School an der Sutt and the Kempten Muslim Women's Social Services, e.V., a local association. The project aims to strengthen refugee mothers and enable them become active participants in their children's schooling. Through a women's breakfast meeting and language classes at the school, they can build their German skills and share experiences. They get information about the German education system and how the schools work, as well as active support in supervising their schoolchildren’s homework. This not only gives them competencies to support their children, but also increases their motivation to become involved at school and to participate in german communities.

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School as a place where mothers participate

The women start their day with a joint breakfast at 8:30 am where they talk about everyday life in their new home. Afterwards, they go from the cafeteria to the craft room for German lessons until noon. "The project provides a space for people to talk to each other. I know of so many who have no one to talk to," says Nadiia Chursina.
Ukrainian Anna Tsiukalenko's lessons are based on everyday situations. How do you ask for directions? How do you describe them to someone? Where can you buy something? Almost all of the women already speak German quite well. Many had started language classes before but couldn't continue because they had to care for their young children. 

At the language café, they are allowed to bring their children along. Project manager Rania Mohamed offers comforts when a child is irritable and at the same time explains what the moms should do when they find a slip that needs to be signed and returned in their child's school satchel – a win for the school, the children and the mothers.

Good to know

Studies are very clear about the barriers to integration that refugee women face. For years, a lack of childcare and the absence of social networks has mean that mothers with a refugee background rarely manage to enter the labor market. The project EngagemenTräume wants to stop to this trend.

When the 12 o'clock bell signals the lesson is over, Nadiia Chursina steps in front of the class. From several bags, she unpacks singing bowls and traditional Ukrainian instruments. "This is a divya," she says. She lifts the metallophone and strokes the metal plates with the mallet. The sound resembles a richer version of a glockenspiel that resonates for a long time. Then she picks up a flat drum. "This is a strumok. It means source," she says. She turns the drum, which is filled with many iron beads, and it sounds like rushing water. As she tunes the singing bowls, some women close their eyes. The sound is soothing and relaxing. "Sound is powerful, it can do a lot with our emotions," she explains.  

[DE Copy] Nadiia Chursina mit Instrument
Nadiia Chursina mit Klangschale
Left: Nadiia Chursina shows how to play a Metallophon. Right: A former yoga teacher, she offers relaxation and well-being with a singing bowl.

Arriving in a foreign country

For Nadiia Chursina this is not a hobby – it was part of her profession in Ukraine. As a yoga teacher and sound therapist, she ran her own studio. She left that behind, too, when she fled her homeland with her eight-year-old daughter a week after the war began. "I was scared, every day there were sirens," she says. They left Zaporizhzhya with her husband, daughter, a couple with a son, and another friend. "We didn't know where to go at first," she recalls. Until an acquaintance invited them to stay in a vacant house on the Hungarian border. They drove for three days, sleeping the first night in a school gymnasium, the second at the home of a woman they met who offered them a bed. But the vacant house on the Hungarian border was freezing cold. "We couldn't stay there," Chursina says. After three days, the women left for Hungary with the children. The men stayed behind; they were not allowed to leave the country. 

"We drove across the border and waited for about five days. We thought it would all pass quickly."

Quote fromNadiia Chursina

Thanks to a friend, they finally came to Allgäu, 1,000 kilometers away, a place they had never heard of. Everything seemed surreal to her at first. And even now, after reality has long since caught up with them, it still feels like a dream from which she will soon awaken, Chursina says.

In Kempten, they were among the first refugees. A local resident offered them an apartment, and they received financial support. The children went to school right after the Easter vacation. And Nadiia Chursina found a job as a school counselor at the municipal secondary school and attended a German course. 

Man walking, Ukraine flag with peace sign in the background
The dossier of the topic

How we support Ukraine

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The Russian war of aggression has been raging in Ukraine for a year. You can find out here about the projects we sponsor and what we are doing to help people in Ukraine.

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Soon the contact with SmF was established. During the fall vacation, Chursina got to know an employee of the association who told her about the SmF's climbing group, which recently received the Bavarian Integration Award for its sports project "Mia san fit! That would be just the thing for her daughter, Chursina thought. The eight-year-old now goes climbing with her father, who has since rejoined the family. It's a real family club – not just for the women, Chursina says. 

The SmF’s mission is to break down barriers and create a space for active participation. Nadiia Chursina and the other women show how easily this can be achieved in a short time, thanks to projects like EngagemenTräume.

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